Try Picking Up the Phone: The Value of Individual Board Member Calls
Before we go any further, I want you to ask yourself one important question: When and how do you and your president engage association board members in direct, proactive dialogue? If you answered only during new board member orientation or regular in-person board meetings, then you’re missing out on valuable opportunities to engage with, and get ideas from, some of your most involved members. Luckily, capitalizing on their knowledge, boosting their levels of engagement, and providing them with personal support can be as easy as picking up the phone.
Connecting with Calls
It may sound simple, but it’s effective. For nearly a decade, the president and I have held joint calls with every board member of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM), where I serve as executive director and CEO. Although each call takes only 30 minutes, the return on investment lasts much longer.
These calls are not irregular or random. They typically occur once or sometimes twice each year. The purpose of the call is clarified in an invitation message sent to all board members. A discussion guide is also shared and meant to stimulate thinking and transparency prior to the call. Often these questions are a springboard for other conversations.
These calls typically occur a month or so after our annual conference and the first board meeting of the new term. This is a great opportunity for a new president to connect and learn more about the interests and strengths of each board member and vice versa. I think it is also a good opportunity for the executive directors to hear what is on the mind of board members. We have institutional knowledge that can help inform a conversation or idea. Before each call, the president is provided with a bit of background regarding each board member (current committee appointments, past areas of leadership, area of interest, etc.). This provides context for each call, and helps better acquaint them with the volunteer leaders with whom they’ll be working closely in the coming year. It also enables the president to acknowledge specific efforts made by that board member at the outset, which always helps get things off on a positive note.
To help with scheduling, we identify 15 thirty minute slots over the course of 4-6 weeks. An online poll is sent to all board members who then select the date and time that works best for them. A calendar request is sent as confirmation along with a call-in number and the discussion questions. Typically, there are 3-4 calls each week which is both manageable and enjoyable. For me, spending an hour or two talking to board leaders each week about strategy, engagement and emerging issues outside of board meetings has proven to be a good use of my time (as well as the president’s). We also typically block 15 minutes following the calls for a short debrief or to talk about something that surfaced. Along the way, I take notes and organize information into three categories:
- Issues: What are the top 10 topics that surfaced during calls?
- Ideas: There are many good ones, some that are easy to do and others that should be passed along to staff or a committee for future consideration.
- Insights: Often this includes notes about board member areas of interests or how they might like to be engaged in the association going forward.
All of this is summarized and reviewed by my president. We typically share a summary of the top 10 themes with the board and staff. Board members enjoy seeing what emerged and appreciate seeing their ideas—and those of others—captured and discussed.
I sense some executive directors worry this will open a door that could result in board members getting “into the weeds.” In my experience, that is more likely to occur when board members aren’t connected or do not have a way to share their thoughts outside of the board room. The conversations can be framed in a strategic and “sensing” manner. These calls are not where promises, decisions, or changes are agreed upon or made. But they do provide opportunities for listening and reflection.
Here are some of the questions that work well for AAHPM individual board member calls:
1. How are things going at work?
It’s amazing how infrequently we ask our board leaders how or what they are doing professionally. This is ironic because they work in the same type of positions as the other members our association supports. Sometimes, I find leaders also will share information about their family and personal life—without being prompted—which can be equally valuable and a key to building a strong, positive relationship.
2. As you engage with members, do you have a sense of what is on their minds these days? Are there any specific ideas or issues the association should be tuning into that we aren't already addressing or considering? If so, what are they?
This is a good opportunity to remind board members that they are not only the eyes and ears of the members, but also ambassadors of the board and the association.
3. How do you feel about the work of the board and opportunities for you to contribute?
If you have people who feel engaged they will tell you. If they don’t, that usually comes out too. For example, a newer board member may share that he or she isn’t sure how they should participate. Others might indicate they feel less involved than they did when serving on a committee role because the board is focused more on strategy and direction.
4. What advice or suggestions do you have for the president and executive director that would help them be successful in their roles with the association?
Perhaps the most interesting and helpful question of all, it’s always best to save this question for last.
Reaping the Rewards
If you’re counting, all of this takes more than one-hour investment for each board member. The investment in time and the benefits resulting from the calls are tremendous:
Supporting Their Success
The call itself can pay dividends. By simply reaching out, you’re communicating to board members that you are committed to their success in the role and reiterating that their ideas, thoughts, and suggestions are valued at every level.
Reinforcing Board Roles
In addition to reinforcing their role as a thought leaders on the board, the call also provides an opportunity for the president to reiterate each board member’s important role as an advocate for the association and its membership at large.
Encouraging Open Communication
These calls give board members the opportunity to share ideas, suggestions, or concerns. By giving them a means to informally discuss what’s on their mind, you’re encouraging open—and more effective—communication between you and your volunteer leaders.
Board meetings are structured to cover a lot of ground; however, often the most intriguing and innovative ideas surface during breaks or informal conversations. Individual calls create additional opportunities for board members to express their opinions in private, and therefore a less risky environment, where they are more likely to share what they really think.
Reinforcing Shared Leadership
By calling together, the president and executive director demonstrate there is a collaborative and supportive relationship between the two positions. It also helps establish the executive director as the chief relationship officer and provides a unique opportunity to respond to complex questions or concerns in a lower stakes environment. The president can reassure board members that he or she is accessible and available as well.
Whether it serves to identify the next big idea to grow your association or simply boosts the confidence of your board members, the individual board call is another way you can promote engagement with your volunteer leaders and, by extension, the success of your association.
So go ahead and pick up the phone—you might just be surprised how your board members respond to the call and the opportunity to talk together with you and your president.
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